Document Donation to Historical Society Yields a Surprise

18th century deed to the Hartshorne House


The Wakefield Historical Society is accustomed to receiving donations of items relating to the town’s past.  The Society, founded in 1890, has a large and fascinating collection of documents, photographs, paintings, furnishings and artifacts, ranging from arrowheads found in the Wakefield area to uniforms worn by Wakefield’s soldiers in the World Wars.   Every item in the Society’s collection has been a donation.   So when Historical Society president Nancy Bertrand received a call regarding a donation of documents that might relate to the town’s past, she was not surprised.  The donor, a New Hampshire resident whose parents were avid collectors of Americana, said he had found the box containing papers that related to the town of South Reading in his basement.  A large part of his parents’ collections had already been donated to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, but the humble wooden box had remained behind.  Putnam Blodgett, the donor, who has a reverence for local history himself, felt that maybe there was a home for these items in the town that South Reading had become, and so he researched for a local history contact in the town of Wakefield.


The heavy wooden box, called a writing slope, was retrieved this summer.  Writing slopes were popular items in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, opening to reveal a sloped surface, with compartments under each side for storage.  This writing slope also features a drawer for additional storage.   A look inside the drawer revealed a folio containing a long narrative poem along with other little booklets and cards, some of which related directly to South Reading, along with some personal correspondence.  It was the interior sides of the chest that held the real treasure.

On one side were letters relating to legal matters concerning the family of Dr. John Hart; the other side contained an assortment of deeds, some of them very old and handwritten on the rag paper used during colonial times.  While looking through the deeds, Bertrand saw the names “Cowdrey” and “Hart” on the same deed, and began to be excited.  Bertrand, who is the Historian of the Hartshorne House in addition to her involvement with the Historical Society and Commission, knew that the Hartshorne House was owned by Jonathon Cowdrey in the eighteenth century, and that he had sold it to Dr. John Hart.  Upon closer inspection, she found that the dates were correct and the pieces all came together – this was indeed an early deed to the Hartshorne House.

The house that we know as the Hartshorne House was actually built before 1681 and knew many owners before the 80-year ownership by James Hartshorne lent his name to the house.  The house was actually long known as the Lafayette House -- because people erroneously believed that the Marquis de Lafayette had stayed at the house while it was an inn in the 1790s.  In fact, the name may have originated with Dr. John Hart, who purchased the house as investment property, and operated the house as an inn, with the second floor being used as the Mount Moriah Lodge for local Masons. 


Dr. John Hart, a colorful figure from the town’s past, was actually born in Ipswich in 1751 and lived in Maine for a while, but when the Revolutionary War began, he enlisted and served as a surgeon for the Revolutionary Army, moving to what is now Wakefield by 1785.  The great grandson of Francis Smith, one of the town’s first settlers, Hart married Mary Gould, the descendant of another first settler and raised his family on Main Street near what was called “Smith’s Pond,” now Crystal Lake.  With a shock of white hair worn in a ‘cue’ (or ponytail) in the Revolutionary style, Dr. Hart refused carriages or buggies and rode on horseback to see his patients, with his medicalequipment stored in the ample pockets of his frock coat.  A politician as well as a doctor, Dr. Hart served on the Board of Selectmen, School Committee and as a state representative and state senator. 


Known for his generosity, Dr. Hart nevertheless became quite a wealthy man, and the documents in the writing slope bear evidence to some of his purchases.  In addition to purchasing what is now the Hartshorne House and Hartshorne’s Meadow (the present Vet’s Field and Hall Park), he made other large purchases of what is now downtown Wakefield.  One of the documents in the box show his purchase of a part of the Common: 

“Know all men by these Presents that we David Smith Amos Bordman Gentl. And Nathel Wiley Yeoman, all of Reading in the County of Midelsex and Commonwealth of Massachusetts Being Chosen a Committee by the First Parish in Town to Sel the Comon Land voted by S. Parish the Second Monday of March one thousand seven hundred and ninety two in consideration of four pounds one shilling paid to us in hand before the Delivery hereof by John Hart Phys. And John Swetsur (sic) both of Reading in the County above…”


If Doctor John Hart was wealthy, however, Jonathon Cowdrey was not..  Cowdrey, a ‘clock and buckle maker,’ owned the Hartshorne House from 1757 to 1792.  One of the documents in the donated collection is a loan taken on the house and land:  “This indenture Made the Sixth Day of November Anno Domini one thousand seven hundred and eighty four and in the nineth (sic) year of the Independence of the United States of America” gave Jonathon Cowdrey and his wife Rachel the loan of the sum of “one hundred true Spanish Milled Dollars” by Jonathan Green of Chelsea.     He would eventually sell the house and land to John Hart “in consideration of one hundred and six pounds ten shillings of lawful money” on the 20th of April in 1792.


The deeds in the writing slope are a wonderful glimpse into the town’s history; signed by luminaries from the eighteenth and nineteenth century town, and presenting a wonderful picture of life in town in the “nineth year of the Independence of the United States of America.”  The documents in the other side of the slope reveal an interesting side of Dr. Hart’s character.  As a Revolutionary War veteran, Dr. Hart drew a pension from the federal government.  Although the amount of the pension for surgeons rose from $480 to $600 per annum after 1818, Dr. Hart was never successful in receiving the increase in his pension.  Until his death in 1835, he carried on a written campaign to attempt to convince the Secretary of War that he was owed a greater pension.  After his death, his wife Mary continued the suit for widow’s benefits.  Even after her death, her son-in-law Dr. Thaddeus Spaulding continued the suit, and letters to a law firm in Washington document the campaign for Dr. Hart’s rightful due. 


Other documents in the donated collection include items as diverse as a catalogue for officers and students of Harvard University; catalogues for medical lectures at Harvard in 1844, a pamphlet for the installation of Rev. Bliss at First Parish Congregational Church in 1862 and a recipe for Whiskey Punch.


“The Wakefield Historical Society is deeply grateful for this generous donation,” said a spokesperson.  “The Society relies upon donations for its collections; it is our mission to work to preserve and maintain these priceless memories of the town’s past for Wakefield’s future generations.”